Intelligent Energy

Europe looks down renewable energy road as U.S. spins wheels

Europe looks down renewable energy road as U.S. spins wheels

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EU climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard wants to extend renewable energy targets by a decade. China has a goal. Will the U.S. finally set one?

While the U.S. continually fails to establish a national minimum requirement for generating electricity from renewable sources, the EU is looking at extending its own two-year-old plan, set to expire in 2020.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU commissioner for climate action, wants to push Europe’s renewable energy targets out to 2030, which would mark an additional 10 years. The EU established its Renewable Energy Directive in 2009, mandating that countries generate at least 20% of their electricity from renewables by 2020.

In an interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper, Hedegaard says she is concerned that recent lobbying efforts by the natural gas industry could shift efforts away from renewables. The gas industry is working hard to establish gas as an alternative that is cleaner than coal and cheaper than renewables. It is pushing for rights to extract shale gas through the same controversial fracking techniques at work in the U.S.

"We should be looking to avoid a lock-in to fossil fuels," Hedegaard tells the Guardian. "We should be discussing a renewable energy target for 2030. We need to have ambitious targets. It would be one way to send a long-term price signal for renewable energy – that renewable energy is not just going to stop growing after 2020."

In the interview, Hedegaard declined to state the minimum level she would want to enshrine beyond 2020. The Guardian notes that some proponents are pushing for 40% by 2030.

An extension of any sort is not guaranteed. The Guardian sites an unnamed official who works with EU commissioner for energy Günther Oettinger as saying that Europe does not yet need targets beyond 2020. The same official opposes raising the target to 30%, as proposed by member states Germany, France and the UK. And countries like Poland and Italy that have opposed minimum standards in the past could object to any extension.

That sort of political uncertainty should resonate in the U.S., where efforts to establish any national minimum have repeatedly failed over the better part of a decade (although various states have passed their own version). Most recently, a watered down bill proposed last year by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat, N.M., to establish a 15% minimum by 2021, fizzled.

The Senate is now considering a bill proposed last month by Senators (and cousins) Mark Udall, Dem., Colo., and Tom Udall Dem, New Mexico, that would target 6% by 2013 and 25% by 2025. In his January State of the Union speech, President Barrack Obama called for 80% of electricity to come from “clean” sources that included “clean coal,” natural gas, and nuclear as well solar, wind and other more widely accepted “renewables.”

While Europe starts wrangling over its future details, at least it has a framework in place. For that matter, so does China, which targets 15% by 2020. It’s time for the U.S. to also take action.

Photo: World Economic Forum/Flickr

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure